Andrew Scheps pilots the Neve 8068 console at Punkerpad West, his Van Nuys, California, studio.
Andrew Scheps earned his spot in the center of the control room the old-fashioned way: by doing whatever job needed doing for some of music’s biggest artists—and doing it well.
After starting his career as a technician for New England Digital (creators of the Synclavier, one of the first digital audio workstations/synthesizers/samplers), Scheps went on to do synthesizer programming, drum loops, Pro Tools editing, and more for artists ranging from Michael Jackson and Jay-Z to Earth, Wind & Fire and Iggy Pop. Along the way he made a connection with mega-producer Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Slayer, Run-D.M.C., Metallica, Tom Petty, Eminem, Adele, and many more) and began engineering many of his projects. The latest of these is Black Sabbath’s 13, the band’s first studio album since 1995, and the first full studio album featuring Ozzy Osbourne since 1978’s Never Say Die! The comeback album reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 charts, debuted at #1 in Canada, and became the first chart-topping album for Sabbath in the U.K. since 1970’s Paranoid.
What was it like mixing the iconic founders of the heavy metal genre? “What was great about it,” says Scheps, “was being able to pull up faders and have it be Black Sabbath, as opposed to a band trying to sound like Black Sabbath. Nobody else plays like that.”
As a mix engineer, do you have input on how things are tracked, or does it only come to you after the tracking is finished?
Usually it’s at the end of the tracking process. That’s when they start thinking, “Hey, who should we get to mix the record?” But there have been a few records where from the beginning they’ve said, “We can’t afford you for the whole project, but we know we’re going to want you to mix. Do you want to come and hang out during the tracking or just be involved a little bit?” That can be great, though I never want to step on the toes of the person who’s actually recording. The last thing any engineer wants is someone else coming in the room and saying, “No man, you should do it that way.”
When you get the tracks, do they also send you a rough mix that was made during tracking?
Almost always. With the way Pro Tools is now, and people working in the box, the rough mixes are usually not terribly rough. They’re quite involved. I always want to get a picture of why they thought the stuff was ready to be mixed.
Is the rough mix the first thing you listen to, or do you put the tracks up first?
Usually I listen to the rough mix. There’s a lot of prep, laying the session out to get it ready to mix. So I do that while listening to the rough mix.
What’s your prep process?
A lot of it is just organizing the Pro Tools session. I mix on a console, so I split things out over multiple outputs, usually 32 to 40. I try to lay things out the same for every mix. The lead vocal is always on fader 24, and the drums always start down on fader 1 and get eight to 12 faders. Next comes bass, then guitars, then keyboards, and above fader 24 is percussion. Once I start mixing I no longer have to think about where stuff is. Color-coding is a big part of my process. The drums are always a very dark blue, the bass is a brighter blue, guitars are always green. If there are a ton of guitars, dark green is the most distorted, and light green is the most clean or acoustic. I can glance at the screen and get a fast snapshot of what’s coming up and how the arrangement plays.
How much of the process is in Pro Tools and how much is in the console?
Most of it is in the console, but there are lots of things that get mixed together in Pro Tools before they come up on the console. If someone has tracked all the guitars but hasn’t yet combined all the microphones, then that gets done in Pro Tools. The last thing I want to think about is five microphones or two different amps when it’s a single guitar performance. That guitar performance gets one fader. Most of the actual mixing happens on the console with outboard gear, but every once in a while I reach for a plug-in just because it’s a different thing.
After the prep, how do you start the mix?
Once I’ve got it all laid out and I’ve listened to the rough mix, the first 70% of mixing is getting a balance. While I’m getting the balance I’m also EQing, compressing, setting up effects, and things like that. I spend a very long time just trying to get a balance where the song plays itself. There was a reason people chose that performance of the song to mix, so presumably there’s some point with the faders all just sitting there when the balance is right, it’s exciting, and you feel why they chose that take.
Some mixers always start with the vocal. Some start with a kick drum. Do you have a process like that?
No, things come up all at once. At the very beginning, I do start with the drums, and usually the kick drum first. But I want to make the drums act like one instrument, not many tracks. I want to think about drums as drums. So I go through and make the drum kit a single instrument the same way I would if I had, say, five tracks of guitar that make up one performance. But outside of that, all the tracks have got to be in. I work my way through the instruments to discover what’s there and fix any sonic problems, but it really is everything all at once as soon as I’ve got the instruments acting as instruments.